American Family Adventures Series — The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair

When I started the print-on-demand, online t-shirt & gift shop that eventually enabled me to become an at-home dad five years ago, I named it World’s Fair. And the title image was that of a silhouetted 19th century Ferris wheel. The humor embedded in that graphic decision is that as of then, I’d never been on a Ferris wheel. I was scared to death of them, even while immensely fascinated by them. Such is also my relationship with the African country of Morocco and fuzzy Kiwi fruit.

OWTK Girls 1893 Worlds Fair Chicago Field Museum

I went into this assignment to cover the new 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition exhibit at the Field Museum in Chicago with about as much excitement and anticipation as anything I’d ever done as a writer. And that includes a pair of trips with Toyota that had me racing Ferraris in Vegas and off-roading in a Tundra. I practically built an entire 25 hour family road trip around this job, to visit and share with you the World’s Fair museum exhibit. I was jacked-up to see an original Juicy Fruit wrapper and Cracker Jacks box (both icons of the snack industry were debuted at the 1893 Fair,) and maybe even an Edison light bulb. Oh! And a car from the iconic Ferris Wheel? Yes, please! Some of the virgin white plaster that helped coin the nickname “White City”? I hope so. A maybe I’d learn a bit more about the Dr. H. H. Holmes murders I read about in Devil in the White City? They did have the book for sale in the World’s Fair gift depot inside the Field Museum! So maybe…

Chicago Worlds Fair Exhibit Poster

Problem is, none of this happened. The specially ticketed exhibit provided insight into some of what the nearly 25 million visitors to the fair did see for the first time; taxidermy animals from Africa and beyond, minerals, grains, woods, and fabrics from every corner of the globe but I never felt immersed in the fair. There was no atmosphere in the exhibit. If the red, white and blue trimmed banners were removed and the first room (which did include original tickets, an accounting ledger, and a map of the fair grounds) not included, I wouldn’t have known that I was in a special exhibit at all. In short, I never once stood in awe as I was hoping I would. I was expecting an immersive experience with period music, maybe live people in period dress to usher visitors through the exhibit, and more photographs to stand in front of and sink myself into while imagining the scene, the smells, and sounds of that legendary half-year event in American history. I thought I’d be traveling back in time.

Chicago Worlds Fair Exhibit Map

Instead, I traveled through just the two rooms that housed the entire exhibit on the eastern side of the massive Field Museum. The 1893 World’s Fair exhibit starts out promising with a square space dedicated to presenting artifacts from the organization of the 6-month event. Here, I ogled beautiful fair tickets, a children’s program, an enormous accounting ledger book from fair organizers, a map of the grounds (that I totally would have bought and framed at home, but such a treasure was curiously absent from the gift shop) and even the first ever ticket sold after the fair to see this very museum dedicated to keeping its memory alive. Super cool. But then we entered the next room, a longer and narrower space, harder to move through with the weekend crowd, with more artifacts on display but less, well, less World’s Fair-y-ness. Without reading each placard, it was not obvious what we were looking at, meaning the displayed artifacts could easily have been scattered throughout the museum and no one would think anything of it.

1893 Worlds Fair Ferris Wheel Field Museum Chicago

Opening the Vaults 1893 Chicago Worlds Fair Banner

Chicago Worlds Fair Exhibit Childrens Book

The World’s Fair Exhibit, like the other special viewings and experiences on offer at the Field Museum (Creatures of Light, Egypt 3D, etc.) costs an extra $8 for adults and $6 for kids on top of the regular museum admission. Considering the relative affordability of this add-on, I would still recommend you take in the 1893 World’s Fair piece on display until September ’14 during your next visit to Chicago. I believe strongly in investing in your child’s childhood and this exhibit, while not living up to my lofty expectations, still gives a hefty glimpse into the world as it existed 120 years ago and this kind of historical experience and conversation starter is worth the ticket price. The volumes of cultural talking points, for example, wrapped up in the description of the living Inuit exhibit that was at the Fair is too important to pass up.

The Field Museum’s app can be a helpful tool to enhance your visit to the museum as a whole and the 1893 World’s Fair exhibit. It is well designed and pretty to look at but in and of itself doesn’t stir emotions. The scanning of QR codes that are located on displays all around the museum can be enlightening, however, the issue is the spotty free WiFi service one must connect to in order to have service while in the bowels of the place. For our entire walk through the World’s Fair exhibit, I unfortunately couldn’t access the internet or the app. It wasn’t until we strolled through the considerably less crowded What’s An Animal and adjacent Reptiles room that I could hop on the network.

For a museum born out of the tumultuous and exhilarating post-modern 1893 World’s Fair, the exhibit that now shares its name felt disappointingly sterile, safe and stiff but I’m still glad we saw it. I am still upset, however, about not being able to snag a replica of that map!

I was selected for this opportunity by Clever Girls Collective, however all content and opinions expressed here are my own.

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